Canadian firm Research In Motion really scored (and created a new household word in the process) when it designed the first BlackBerry devices. Their small yet usable keyboards and "push" approach to e-mail have become the standards by which all other mobile devices have been judged - or at least, those that aspire to meet the e-mail and messaging needs of the business traveler.

But other handhelds have brought new strengths and features to the table, including different form factors, cameras, MP3 players, voice recorders - and with Windows Mobile (formerly Pocket PC, formerly Windows CE) and Palm OS devices, the ability to run literally thousands of applications. There are BlackBerry apps out there (don't believe us? Read this article), but not nearly as many.

Still, the newest member of the BlackBerry family (a quad-band phone hybrid with EDGE support) offers more PDA functionality than ever, and it retains all its core strengths as a mobile e-mail powerhouse.

I got the chance to test a pre-production unit, and I doubt that the 8700c (launched in the US by Cingular this month) will convert Treo or Windows Mobile lovers. But corporate travelers tied to the BlackBerry platform might find the new functionality and shape appealing - and like its predecessors, the 8700c remains a strong option for anyone who wants to type mail or messages on a handheld.

It's not yet announced in the UK, from any of RIM's resellers, O2, Vodafone or T-Mobile. In the US, Cingular plans to start selling the hybrid on November 21; it'll cost $300 with a two-year contract after mail-in rebate, or $450 for current Cingular subscribers.

Big screen, big picture
As with all BlackBerry devices, navigation is accomplished via a jog wheel and an Escape button (located on the right side of the device) that help you maneuver through the icon-driven main screen and, thereafter, pop-up text menus. The 8700c also has a new so-called Convenience button on the left side that works like the button immediately under the display: You can program either of them to launch the application or utility of your choice.

One of the reasons that a BlackBerry is so good at e-mail is its high-resolution 320-by-240-pixel screen. Text looks extraordinarily sharp and crisp, and the device can show 13 lines of it at a time. I wouldn't want to read War and Peace on a BlackBerry display, but it's as good as handhelds get for messages and general e-mail. This has been true of BlackBerrys for some time.

Don't be misled by the basic blue, black, and orange hues of the familiar BlackBerry icons on the 8700c's home screen: This device can handle 65,000-plus colors. My test unit came loaded with a selection of JPEG images (click on Applications, then Pictures) that looked sharp and terrific.

I also tried out a new picture-viewing feature: When you download an image as an e-mail attachment, you receive a low-res version that fits the BlackBerry screen. But you can zoom in on a portion of the image and then click the Enhance menu option to retrieve and display additional image data in order to increase the resolution of the area you've zoomed in on.

The e-postman cometh
The BlackBerry desktop software that comes with the 8700c includes Intellisync, which allows it to support almost any desktop organizer. PC World's Lotus Notes installation has stymied many a sync software package, but the BlackBerry's Intellisync had no trouble transferring my contacts and calendar data to the 8700c.

The BlackBerry 8700c will collect e-mail from up to ten separate accounts in its Inbox. Setting up a POP3 account was a snap, but with no access to a corporate BlackBerry server, getting my corporate e-mail required getting on my Internet-connected PC and setting up my Lotus Notes account on the BlackBerry Internet Service Web site (US service provider Cingular gives that free with data accounts that range in price from $35 a month for 4Mbyte of data, $45 for unlimited domestic data, and $65 for unlimited domestic and international data). Within half an hour, I was receiving copies of my Notes e-mail in the 8700c's Inbox.

Once an account is set up, the mail just appears; the device checks for it every few minutes. The 8700c's keyboard is excellent for a handheld. Its keys are firm and well spaced, which is one of the advantages of settling for a device wider than a Treo. But sending outbound e-mail was problematic. You can only identify yourself as sender with one e-mail address of your choice; that means your outgoing corporate e-mail may have to look like it's coming from your personal account or vice versa. Also, the BlackBerry Internet Service doesn't synchronise with your accounts--if you delete a message on your handheld, you'll have to delete it separately on your PC.

There is one nice e-mail feature that you don't find on most handhelds: a filtering option. You can use filters to hone in on important messages while leaving the messages that aren't a priority (not to mention the junk mail) on your server, to be read later on.

The 8700c's browser, however, is nothing to write home about. It had no technology to accommodate or optimize for the device's small screen: Elements of PC World's home page simply piled one on top of the other. Cingular's EDGE network brought them in with reasonable speed, but the entire undertaking still felt sluggish.

Talking 8700c
How does the 8700c work as a phone? Not badly at all. My parents across the country sounded as close as my husband five blocks away. The integration between the contact entries and the phone was excellent: Just click on a name and you're presented with an array of options, including initiating a phone call and sending e-mail or a text message.

The 8700c is still more of a PDA than a phone. It's 2.7 inches wide, almost half an inch wider than the Treo 650. Although at 4.7 ounces, it's significantly lighter in weight; the Treo checks in at 6.3 ounces. Still, the 8700c's charcoal grey and black case seems somehow more svelte and more compact than previous BlackBerry hybrids, except for the much more phone-like 7300, which doesn't have a true QWERTY keyboard.

I like what RIM has done here, but I'm wondering whom the target audience is. The 8700c is not a Palm or Windows Mobile killer. But it is a very good BlackBerry, one that could well answer the prayers of corporate BlackBerry users who are ready for an upgrade. Otherwise, if a large pool of third-party applications doesn't mean much to you, but you are prepared to invest in a device to help manage your e-mail or do a little light browsing, the 8700c is certainly worth considering.

OUR VERDICT

This is a very good BlackBerry that will please fans of the mobile e-mail device. It's not a Windows or Palm-killer, though.